On Policing and Racial Justice, Justin Trudeau Is Offering Empty Gestures, Not Real Action

With thousands of Canadians protesting police violence, Justin Trudeau has offered no plans to combat brutality in Canadian policing — but he did take a knee at an Ottawa protest for the cameras. It’s a tried-and-true Trudeau formula: refuse to take meaningful progressive action, but pose for the press as if he did.

Justin Trudeau takes a knee at a racial justice demonstration in Ottawa, Canada, on June 5, 2020.

Early last week, a reporter asked Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau to comment on the events unfolding throughout the United States:

You’ve been reluctant to comment on the words and actions of the US president. But we do have Donald Trump now calling for military action against protesters. We saw protesters teargassed yesterday to make way for a presidential photo-op. I’d like to ask you what you think about that, and if you don’t want to comment, what message do you think you’re sending?

It was a perfectly reasonable question, particularly given the international brand Trudeau has quite deliberately built as the quintessential anti-Trump figure. The prime minister’s response, or rather lack of one, proved emblematic.

Pausing for a full twenty-one seconds, Trudeau did eventually offer a vague statement about “horror and consternation” and a plea for people to pull together that stayed notably short of anything specific. These comments, however, were largely overshadowed by the prime minister’s lengthy pause, which quickly made international news and became another in a long lineage of viral moments for Canada’s media-savvy Liberal PM.

At first blush, the silence might be put down to sheer surprise: indicative of a nervous politician taking a bit too long to devise an appropriately tepid answer to an unexpectedly pointed question. The more likely explanation, however, is that Trudeau’s pause was calculated in advance and intended to create an empty space onto which others might project anti-Trump sentiment that the prime minister hadn’t actually expressed himself.

Given the general reaction in the media and elsewhere, it seems to have had the desired effect.

Trudeau has long made masterful use of symbolic gestures like this, particularly vis-à-vis Donald Trump. In 2017, for example, he generated effusive headlines throughout the world with a viral tweet about refugees — intended as a not-so-subtle rejoinder to Trump’s Muslim ban. The sentiment earned him plaudits on a global scale, but nothing about Canada’s border or refugee policies actually changed as a result (Canadian authorities are still cooperating with their US counterparts in sending asylum seekers back into the arms of an administration that may imprison or deport them). Last fall, he made sure to be seen at a climate rally in Montreal despite his government’s aggressive pursuit of pipeline projects and willingness to use both federal funds and force to make them a reality.

Trudeau has continued to meet the present moment with the same combination of vague symbolism and lack of action. At a press conference Friday morning, he committed to “changing the systems that do not do right by too many Indigenous people and racialized Canadians” but doggedly refused to offer a single specific measure his government plans to take in response to systemic racism in Canada’s police forces. Later that day, Trudeau made a surprise visit to a racial justice demonstration in Ottawa and, surrounded by cameras, took a knee alongside protestors (the latter, of course, being what made the news).

Alongside their counterparts in the United States, Canadian activists have been organizing big demonstrations to protest systemic racism and the regular deaths of black and indigenous Canadians at the hands of police. Recent cases like those of Regis Korchinski-Paquet — a twenty-nine-year-old woman who fell from her Toronto balcony and died after police were called to her apartment on May 27 — and Chantel Moore, a twenty-six-year-old New Brunswick woman who was shot repeatedly by officers earlier this month during what was supposed to be a “wellness check,”, are only the latest examples of racialized people in Canada being killed by police.

An analysis by researchers at Canada’s public broadcaster found that police killings have risen over the past twenty years, with both black and indigenous Canadians disproportionately likely to be the victims. With one in four police officers under direct federal jurisdiction, there is much the Trudeau government might do right away to confront the systemic racism of Canada’s policing and criminal justice systems — that is, if it really wanted to.

From Ottawa to Washington and from New York to Seattle, liberal politicians have everywhere taken to meeting activist demands with a similar combination of empty symbolism and moral complacency — taking knees and issuing comforting sound bites while saying decidedly little about pulling funds from bloated police departments or reining in repressive curfews designed to stifle the surging protests. If nothing else, this suggests that activist pressure has become sufficiently strong for centrist forces to try to co-opt it. It also tells us that unless people continue to fill the streets, there will be plenty more knees and long pauses taken in lieu of actual change.